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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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For Saudi Women, Going to Law School Represents Far More than a Degree

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Whenever I feel overwhelmed by self-loathing and/or pity at the thought that the vast majority of the legal work that gets done in this country (and that I may very well end up doing) involves nothing more than fighting over other people’s money, I get a reminder – that there are, in fact, higher callings in this profession.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Last fall, women here were permitted for the first time to enroll in law school. In a country famous for not letting women drive or reveal their faces in public, the change has some young female students almost giddy with optimism.

WSJ: For Saudi Women, A Whiff of Change

“Law is an open field. You can do anything when you study law,” says 20-year-old Jamila Shalhoud.

“We are going to help women know their rights,” adds her classmate Sara Alayyaf, 19, looking like an American college girl in tennis shoes with no laces. “Everything is going to change.”

It can’t change soon enough for Fatima Mansour. While the young law students in Riyadh live their dream, Ms. Mansour sits in jail in the city of Dammam with her 1-year-old son, caught in a Saudi Catch-22.

After her father died a few years ago, Ms. Mansour’s half-brothers declared themselves her guardians, even though she was married. They accused her husband of lying to the family about his tribal background before the marriage. As her guardians, they took her to Islamic court and persuaded a judge to force her to divorce her husband.

He has the couple’s other child, a 4-year-old daughter, and Ms. Mansour wants to rejoin him. But to do so, now that they have been divorced, would make her guilty of adultery, a grievous crime here. She refuses to go back to the home occupied by the half-brothers who ended her marriage, and there is no other place for the court to send a woman for her protection. So even though there are no charges against the 33-year-old Ms. Mansour, she waits in jail, caught in a system that seems to offer her no escape other than going to her half-brothers, who she fears might kill her.

The tug of war between tradition and modernity plays out in virtually every aspect of Saudi society, but nowhere more so than in the lives of its women. Unmarried men and women are forbidden to speak alone unless they are related. Yet the Internet now makes it possible for them to exchange phone numbers — and then phone calls. Couples who dine out are segregated behind portable partitions to keep them from being seen by single men. Yet the sexes mix at the new Al Faisaliah shopping-mall food court as they select from Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s. Women are supposed to wear a long garment called an abaya when strangers are present, yet increasing numbers don it only outdoors and dress in Western clothes at the office.

The Saudi monarchy faces these and other social forces, such as high youth unemployment, that it constantly strives to balance to maintain its monopoly on political power. Indeed, arguably the greatest challenge to the regime isn’t terrorism or external threat but pervasive social contradictions, some of them unleashed by tentative liberalizations of the regime itself. Thus, the monarchy is engaged in a complex triangulation of the competing forces. And how well it does so is of key importance to the rest of the world, given the kingdom’s oil reserves, its status as a U.S. ally and its position of relative stability in a geopolitically vital region.

As Saudi society tiptoes gingerly into the 21st century, its women remain largely left behind, in a system that tightly limits their independence under the rubric of protecting them. That said, a monthlong visit here finds mounting pressures for liberalization, pockets of surprising change, and optimism, perhaps naive, among younger women that their lives will be far freer.

A core restriction is the segregation of the sexes. “A man is not secluded with a woman but that Satan is the third party to them,” the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as having said. Enforcing segregation of the sexes is one task of a Saudi institution called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, whose minions, the morals police, monitor public places. The rule is such that even married couples can’t jointly attend Al Janadriya, an annual festival celebrating Saudi traditions, including camel races. Like all recreational events, it has separate days for men and women.

Saudi women pressing for change focus chiefly on increasing career opportunities, not on challenging this sex separation. In practical terms, this means persuading workplaces to establish separate sections for women.

“The issue isn’t about working so much as creating the proper protected environment in which women can work,” says Haifa Jamalallail, dean of Effat College in Jidda, named for a queen who helped bring girls’ education to the kingdom in the 1960s.

King Abdullah issued a royal decree last year that women must be encouraged to work in all fields. The decree said government ministries should form women’s sections, so that women can represent themselves at government offices rather than have a brother or father or husband do so. So, it is seen as progress here that women now can work as salespeople at Al Faisaliah Mall, a sprawling three-story shopping center in Riyadh, even though they’re confined to a floor for women shoppers only.

“King Abdullah has tried to help women,” says Basmah Mosleh Omair, general manager of the women’s business center at the Jidda Chamber of Commerce. “His ministers support him.” Yet so far, not much has happened. The problem, Ms. Omair says, is that “down in the ministries where the paper is handled, there is resistance to change.”

The monarch wins praise from Saudi women for including several in his entourage on visits abroad, as well as for involving women in televised national dialogues among citizens. Yet at the same time — in an illustration of how sharply opinions differ — some Saudis saw it as scandalous when, after young female university students visited India, newspapers showed photos of them meeting with the Indian president with their faces uncovered.

And when the case of Ms. Mansour, the forcibly divorced and now jailed mother, attracted press coverage and prompted other women to petition the king to help her, the effort attracted only 300 signatures in 10 days. This wide divergence of views acts as a limit on change, especially in combination with the royal regime’s constant effort to balance opposing forces.

In a country with a work force of 3.4 million Saudis and a greater number of imported foreign workers, only 7% of employed Saudis are women. But the numbers are inching up. Beyond support from the King, education and economic necessity are creating more demands from women to work.

Some 58% of Saudi university graduates are women. These educated women no longer want to be limited to teaching and medicine, the fields open to them for three decades. Business, information technology, interior design and engineering are all new fields for women. They could be opened up because in these fields, it’s relatively easy to set up separate offices for women to work.

Nahad Taher recently launched Gulf One Investment Bank, where she is chief executive. “Because women have been denied more, they try harder and give more,” she says. “Women are desperate to work.”

Ms. Taher, like a number of successful Saudi professional women, spent her early years outside the kingdom. On a recent visit, she was wearing a camel suede jacket and heels with brown pants and sweater, looking and sounding like an American businesswoman. When she goes outdoors, she covers this Western dress by slipping on a long black abaya and covering her hair with a black scarf.

Selwa Al Hazzaa, a renowned eye doctor who treated the late King Fahd, spent her early years in Arizona. After graduating from King Khalid University she wanted to do a residency in the U.S., but her father declined to let her go alone. “He thought no one would marry me if I did that,” Dr. Al Hazzaa says. Her parents arranged marriage to Abdullah, a U.S.-educated Saudi, who the doctor says is “totally supportive” of her career.

Economic necessity often brings women into the job market. Saudi Arabia’s population has more than tripled in 25 years, to 16.5 million. The explosive growth means the government can no longer afford to give land and loans to young Saudis, as it did in the early years of its oil riches. So owning a home is beyond the reach of many couples unless both partners work.

For others, work is necessary to eat. One in four marriages here ends in divorce. “The courts sometimes award divorced women money to help rear their children, but men don’t pay it and often nothing is done,” says Princess Adela bint Abdullah, a daughter of King Abdullah and active supporter of advancing women’s opportunities.

Another royal, Princess Moudi bint Khalid, who runs a philanthropic society in Riyadh, says that “for underprivileged women, working is essential. The woman supports the family, as men sometimes aren’t responsible.”

At the Astra Farms nursery in Tabuk, a military center in the north, a dozen young women in abayas package flowers for shipment. Their boss says they are much better workers than the dozen men of various foreign nationalities who do the same work. He says he plans soon to replace the foreign men with Saudi women.

Most Saudi men aren’t interested in such menial work. About the only service work many Saudi men will do is serving guests thimblefuls of Arabic coffee in office workplaces, although the government is proud that there now are some male Saudi taxi drivers and a growing number of young Saudi men willing to work in a Burger King or McDonald’s.

Princess Adela headed a women’s business committee in Jidda that said women should have an advocate in the local Chamber of Commerce. Two women were elected to its board and two more were appointed by the Saudi Ministry of Commerce. Jidda, the kingdom’s commercial center, is much more relaxed than the political capital of Riyadh, where women were intimidated last year into not running for the Chamber of Commerce board.

To make the Jidda Chamber’s women’s business center more palatable to religious conservatives, it was named after Khadijah bint Khouwalid, the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, a wealthy businesswoman 15 years his senior. “We have to use the religion to refute religious extremists and attain the rights that the Quran gives women,” says Ms. Omair, the head of the women’s center. Her team is going through the regulations of each ministry to see which hamper women and then poring over the Quran to produce justification for change.

Some 4,000 women have registered businesses with the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce. Among them is Munirah al Chinaifi, an entrepreneur who owns a wide array of businesses, from restaurants to wedding organizers. She estimates that half of the registered businesses actually are run by men using their wives’ names, because government employees can’t own businesses. “But even 2,000 female businesses is progress,” she says.

“We have jobs and we have money,” Ms. al Chinaifi says. “What I wish is that we could change the mentality of the people to accept women as they do men.”

Reem al Mogbel, a 2002 graduate of Riyadh’s King Saud University, has a toddler at home and a baby on the way. But she is working at one of the kingdom’s new technical training schools to equip unemployed youth, including many college graduates, for jobs. “The first question my husband asked me was, ‘Are you going to work?’” Ms. al Mogbel says. “As soon as our son was one year old, he said, ‘Please go to work.’”

Moreover, her mother, who tends her child, also pressures her to work. “I didn’t have the opportunity to work, so you must take it,” she quotes her mother as saying. Ms. Mogbel says her father is supportive, too, “My father is 60, and when he admires the establishment of training schools like this, then I know things are changing.”

Fadia Saud Alsaleh, dean of the Prince Sultan University College for Women, a private school in Riyadh where classes are taught in English, is convinced that “the government has changed completely its perspective on women. We are expecting more changes for women,” she says, “so we have to run for those changes and be ready when they come.”

Perhaps one of those future changes will permit the women now entering law school to someday use their law educations fully. As it stands now, though women will be able to earn law degrees, these degrees won’t permit them to actually represent clients in a courtroom. That remains impossible, because the judges are men.

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